There has been a lot of buzz in the media surrounding gut health – with the mysterious microbiome being at the centre of that attention. If the headlines about the microbiome have caught your attention you’re probably wondering “What is all the fuss about?
An introduction to the microbiome
The human microbiome refers to the collective genetic material of the microorganisms living both on and in our bodies. An individual’s microbiome is composed of a staggering 10 -100 trillion microbial cells!
More specifically, a microbiota is the aggregate of microorganisms – including bacteria, fungi and viruses – that reside in a particular location. Areas of the body that are colonised by microorganisms include, but are not limited to; our skin, oral cavity, lungs and, most famously, our gut.
The importance of a healthy gut microbiota
A gut microbiota – or “gut flora”- that’s considered healthy is one that’s stable and high in beneficial microorganisms. It’s crucial to maintain this state due to the gut’s responsibility of carrying out a range of jobs which support the human body, including the synthesis of nutrients and energy through fermenting non-digestible foods (which helps us fully utilise the food we eat) and the support of the immune system by defending the body against pathogens.
Additionally, research suggests that a healthy gut can prevent gut dysbiosis – an imbalance of microorganisms in the gut – which may be related to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety – so it’s never been more important to look at nutrition for a healthy gut. Even skin health can be impacted by the state of the gut, and the importance of a healthy gut microbiota is currently being explored in relation to preventing and treating allergic diseases such as atopic dermatitis (a type of eczema).
A recent study of pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers assessed how taking a probiotic supplement for an extended period of time might impact the skin health of the infants; the results show that the prevalence of eczema seen in the infants at the one-year mark was significantly lower in those exposed to probiotic supplementation than those in the placebo group.
The list of benefits of hosting a healthy gut microbiota is extensive and, put simply, without it we would be unable to function optimally. But it’s also important to note that gut health exists in a delicate balance and there are a number of ways you can both support and disrupt the gut’s natural rhythms.
What supports a healthy microbiota and what disrupts it?
A healthy gut flora is established during infancy. When an infant is born, its gastrointestinal tract – the organ system responsible for digesting and absorbing nutrients from food – is immediately colonised by microbes (microorganisms). Research suggests that by age one, an infant’s gut microbiota begins to resemble that of an adult.
Gut flora can be impaired after using antibiotics, by chronic stress, and by not getting enough sleep or physical activity. It can also be damaged by excessive alcohol consumption.
As we age, we may experience a decline in the stability of the gut microbiota due to weakened immune functioning. However the data on gut microbiota and ageing suggests that what we eat has the biggest impact on gut health.
What to eat for a healthy gut microbiota
With diet being the most important aspect of gut microbiota composition – even short-term dietary changes can have a significant impact.
Diets high in sugar, artificial sweeteners, food additives and meat products are associated with an unhealthy gut microbiota; a recent study shows that participants who consumed a diet high in animal products were more likely to host an overgrowth of microorganisms capable of triggering inflammatory bowel disease. Inversely, some studies suggest that plant-based diets are linked to a diverse and healthy gut microbiota. Even if you’re not ready to commit to a plant-based diet at this time, you can still support your gut by focusing on consuming naturally sourced fibre and maybe supplementing with high-quality probiotics – which are also commonly referred to as ‘friendly’ bacteria, they can restore and balance the gut microbiota. And when on-the-go make sure that you’re snacking for a healthy gut too.
Foods high in probiotics include fermented products like yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha, apple cider vinegar and natto. These products might not be on your weekly shopping list, but they are well worth testing out due to their spectacular probiotic content.
Relatedly, when shopping, check food labels for the following friendly bacteria:
• Lactobacillus acidophilus
• Lactobacillus bulgaricus
• Lactobacillus reuteri
• Streptococcus thermophilus
• Saccharomyces boulardii
• Bifidobacterium bifidum
• Bacillus subtilis
Similarly, prebiotics have been shown to support gut health. Prebiotics are the non-digestible fibre that probiotics feed off. Examples of foods rich in prebiotics include; raw or cooked onions, raw asparagus, leeks, bananas, artichokes, and chicory root.
Love your gut
Taking care of your gut microbiota is imperative as it serves many important health functions. The smallest of changes can upset its balance and have detrimental effects on the body. If you want to go the extra mile, add some probiotics and prebiotics to your diet – these will give your gut a helping hand.
Feature from inside our Thrive Health Magazine Summer issue article written by: Anna Radmayne @be_free_with_anna